Monday, February 17, 2014

Abraham, Brigham and AJ

I've been spending some time with John G. Turner's absorbing biography of Brigham Young and I find my mind seeking him to fit him into a larger culture that includes Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. 

Sure, the comparison is a stretch, but bear with me here.  It seems to me that the period beginning with Jackson and pretty much ending with Lincoln was the one time in American history when raw, unvarnished country boys--nobodies from nowhere--could rise to positions of real leadership,  Rise, moreover, on their own talents and energy, if not always their virtue. 

I'm not quite sure how far I can go with this without torturing the evidence beyond all recognition.   Jackson, surely is he most dramatic example of the three, not least because of his untrammeled and, yes, undisciplined energy: the man who won his great battle after the war was over, the scourge of the Indians, the man who destroyed an economy largely because he didn't understand it and was blissfully untroubled by his own incomprehension.*   Jackson's real contribution, I suspect, was not so much himself but the revolution he crystallized: the explosion of energy from a whole multitude of hitherto nameless and faceless Americans: the "ordinary sort: who proved themselves capable of extraordinary achievement.

Young's beginnings may have been quite as humble as Jackson's but they were close and he was, in any event, the sort who likely wouldn't have been able to make a place for himself in any earlier time.  His achievement may at first blush seem more modest: governor of a :"state" (broadly defined) and not president of an emerging nation.  But reading Turner builds the conviction that it may be easier to underestimate Young precisely because he was more successful: he made it look easy.

Or better: look easy from a distance.  Closer up, you can see what an extraordinary accident he was.  Poorly educated and the possessor of no noteworthy skills--except, perhaps, extraordinary energy--he found himself in a position top put a claim on leadership by the sheer fortuity of Joseph Smith's untimely death.  What he did show from that moment on through the rest of his life was a singular capacity to lead, coupled with (they do not always go together) a remarkable knack for administration.    Taken together, these qualities allowed him to dominate his movement from then on until his death some 30 years later.  It's hard to imagine Mormonism without him: indeed it's an entertaining thought experiment to wonder what might have become of these peculiar people had it been Young and not Smith who had been murdered by the mob in Illinois.

Which brings us to Lincoln who, in comparison with the other two, emerges as even more extraordinary than he does on his own.  Starting with at least as fragmentary an education as the other two, he equipped himself in a skilled trade and a learned profession--and as perhaps the best writer/speaker of ll our 44 Presidents.    And the elemental energy y that seems to define the other two--at least on the outside, Lincoln showed none of that.  .   What he did show was that still center in the eye of the storm that made him so hard to overestimate, so easy to undervalue.

I don't mean to belittle Young here.  Rather, my point is that each of the three personifies and even articulates a culture that no one before it could have anticipated and that we in our own time find difficult even to comprehend.

*I confess I didn't always feel this way: I grew up on Arthur Schlesinger's Age of Jackson which now seems to me to be to be a bit of starry-eyed hero worship: Schlesinger in training for the courtier role he played so comfortably for Jack Kennedy.

Oh and another footnote.  It fell to me in my delusion to suggest to his mother that we name our son "Andrew Jackson;" we could call him "AJ."  I am eternally in her debt that she would have none of it.

1 comment:

The New York Crank said...

Please add to the list Peter Cooper, inventor, railroad magnate, glue factory operator, industrial polluter, land speculator, penny-pinching cheapskate and educational philanthropist among the many hats he wore. He also had the most formidably bizarre beard ever worn by a 19th Century oveachiever.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank